British troops await Iraq deployment go-ahead

Last updated at 09:15 19 October 2004

British troops will be sent to US-controlled areas of Iraq if commanders on the ground advise that it is operationally justified, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw confirmed today.

The US has made a request for British forces to "back fill" in areas close to Baghdad, in order to free its own troops to take part in the planned assault on the insurgents' stronghold of Fallujah.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon yesterday told the House of Commons that no decision had yet been made on whether to redeploy troops, but told MPs that Britain would be letting down an ally if it failed to respond positively.

He did not challenge assumptions that the main UK element involved would be the Black Watch - currently the reserve force covering the British area of responsibility around Basra.

Mr Straw this morning said that the decisive issue would be the report of a military reconnaissance team currently in Iraq assessing the likely impact of a redeployment.

The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, is expected to make a final recommendation to the Government within the next few days, after the reconnaissance team reports.

Mr Straw told the BBC: "It is possible to say no. It depends on the advice we receive from the professional soldiers on the ground.

"I think we would be letting down an ally if we were to say no in the face of very clear advice from our own British commanders that we should make this contribution."

The US request sparked concern on all sides of the Commons yesterday, with Liberal Democrats demanding that no British troops be deployed outside the UK-controlled south of Iraq without a vote in Parliament.

Conservative leader Michael Howard today said that important questions remained to be answered on whether redeployment would put other UK troops

at risk.

Mr Howard said: "We don't have a reserve force in southern Iraq for fun. It is there for a purpose."

Although the south of Iraq is relatively quiet, British troops in towns such as Al-Amarah have come under heavy attack in recent weeks, he said.

"There is no doubt that the removal of the reserve - and we haven't been told there are any plans to replace it - will expose our troops to greater risk," said Mr Howard.

"If there is a compelling justification for us to accept that greater risk, then we will support that deployment, but we haven't had it yet."